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What "Growth and Opportunity" Means for a Digital GOP

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, March 18 2013

Several conservative operatives and party alumni expressed cautious optimism on Monday as the Republican National Committee issued a 100-page report that implicitly acknowledged their criticisms, and then outlined a framework for revamping its operations to correct those deficiencies.

Some Democrats, meanwhile, took notice of the Republican Party's efforts — and took it as a sign that they shouldn't be complacent in the afterglow from electoral victories on several fronts in 2012.

"The RNC report today showcased a verbal commitment to donors, grassroots, and the established digital class that the RNC plans to take technology seriously," said Vincent Harris, founder of the Republican digital consulting firm Harris Media in Austin, Texas. "After we got our butts handed to us on a national level in 2012, this is refreshing news. My hope is that the Committee moves forward in an open and transparent way, one where the process takes feedback collectively in order to move the party forward."

"The good news is the public recognition of the issues the RNC faces," said Michael Turk, a longtime GOP digital and communications strategist who has moved on and now runs his own issue advocacy consulting firm called Opinion Mover Strategies. "The plan clearly identifies both the extent of the problems as well as the opportunities before the Committee. As with any sort of effort to change an established institution, though, the way those changes are implemented will be the real challenge. I think this is one of those rare moments when everyone understands the depth and breadth of what needs to be done. I'm hopeful that Chairman Priebus will put in place the people and structure to effectively tackle that."

The RNC's report takes an unflinching look at all aspects of its operations in 2012, as well as how Mitt Romney, its presidential candidate, performed, and found most of those aspects deficient. Much of the report contains implicit acknowledgements of most of the election post-mortems made by members of its party in the pages of techPresident and elsewhere. For example, the report begins by acknowledging that "Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them, or want them in the country. When someone rolls their eyes at us, they are not likely to open their ears to us."

In addition, the report states: "At our core, Republicans have comfortably remained the Party of Reagan without figuring out what comes next," sentiments that echo what Kristen Soltis Anderson, a pollster and vice president at The Winston Group, shared with techPresident shortly after the election in November.

Focus groups told the Republican party that they perceived the party being made up of "stuffy old men."

The RNC report calls for what amounts to an overall overhaul of the party and its membership, as well as how it operates. That means getting the conservative message out to minorities, finding spokespeople to reach those constituencies, and addressing those constituencies with real-life examples of their ideas rather than with dry policy ideas -- much as President Obama's campaign sought to do in 2012.

In fact, many of the recommendations in the RNC's "Growth and Opportunity Project," amount to an acknowledgment that the party needs to adopt many -- if not most -- of the Democrats' tactics.

For example, the authors of the "Growth and Opportunity Project" report that "Obama's campaign knocked on twice as many doors as the Romney campaign, and Obama's campaign had a ballot edge among those contacted by both campaigns." (As techPresident noted earlier this year.)

In remarks Monday morning at the National Press Club, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus promised that the party would adopt a culture of rigorous testing of every aspect of campaigning to ensure that the programs are effective, building better and more integrated data platforms that various arms of the party can access, working more collaboratively, and changing the party's structure to make it less hierarchical and more networked.

"Using the GOP's data, the Data Analytics Institute would work to develop a specific set of tests for 2013 and 2014 -- tests on voter registration, persuasion, GOTV, and voter mobilization -- that will then be adopted into future programs to ensure that our voter contact and targeting dollars are spent on proven performance," says the report.

The party's leaders plan to meet up next month to establish a timeline for the implementation of the report's recommendations.

"They're definitively headed the right direction," said Bret Jacobson, a partner at Red Edge, a digital consulting firm in Arlington, Va., who's written in the past about the party's lagging technology infrastructure (and who was ignored.) "The question is how quickly can an entire culture adapt, and I think that there's evidence that the culture has to adapt, and then it's up to a lot of people to buy into that."

Asked whether he thinks the GOP is going to be able to find enough talent to help it with its makeover, Jacobson responded: "Talent acquisition is going to be the biggest operational challenge overhead, and the plan released today is a really good guide for the long-term. What we're going to be keeping an eye on is who they hire for the chief digital strategist."

Jacobson and his concerns about the Republican Party's poor tech performance recently appeared in the New York Times Magazine. He said that Sally Bradshaw, one of the commissioners who worked on the Growth and Opportunity Project, reached out to him after the article came out. Many of the questions she asked him were answered in Monday's report, he said. The next step is implementing those ideas.

Ethan Roeder, Obama 2012's former director of data, who's now executive director of the New Organizing Institute, said the RNC's report "should ring alarm bells for progressives."

"It shows an investment in self-reflection and a commitment to improvement while practitioners on the left are busy congratulating each other and cracking wise about being on the right side of the great 'digital divide,'" he wrote in an e-mail to techPresident. "The introductory paragraphs of the 2012 Obama Campaign Legacy Report end with this sentence: "Your recollections and lessons will help capture for posterity the story of our success." The intro to the RNC report ends with "We look forward to joining our fellow Republicans in the work ahead." Activists and leaders on the left would be well served to forget about the miracles we worked last year and start thinking hard about how to win the victories of tomorrow."

On Monday, the RNC also tweeted that it plans on opening a San Francisco satellite office to "make it easier for technologists to join our effort."

Catherine Bracy, who co-directed President Obama's San Francisco field office for the 2012 campaign, said that based on her experience, that effort in itself might be misguided.

"The more we worked, the more we realized how disconnected the technology volunteers were from the rest of the volunteer infrastructure and organization," she said. "If we had the time, it would have been great to try to infuse technology volunteers across the organization. Just blindly going to San Francisco because you think that's going to make you more innovative misses the point. It misses the point of figuring out what a grassroots movement needs to look like."

Like a lot of other Democrats reacting to the RNC report on Monday, she added: "Focusing on technology is not the point. Paradoxically, if we learned anything on this campaign by spending all this money on technology, is that human connection is more important than ever, and that means having ideas that are resonant, so until the main conference on conservative grassroots stuff stops having panels on 'How To Get People To Stop Calling Me A Racist,' then I think they're going to have problems on the outreach side, and no amount of technology is going to help them there."